Community organizers, faith groups, and friends and family of the steady stream of in-custody deaths at the county jail in Dublin gathered over the weekend to memorialize the casualties of what they say are notoriously harsh conditions at the facility while calling for changes including independent oversight of the facility and non-carceral solutions to mental health and substance abuse challenges.
A crowd of approximately 75 came together outside Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday with speakers, a march, and continued discussion carrying on past 3 p.m., including words from currently and formerly incarcerated people, the surviving family of casualties at the jail, and community organizers seeking to put an end to harsh treatment and deaths within its walls.
The "Care not Death" vigil and noise demonstration was organized by Care First Community Coalition in conjunction with other local civil rights and activist organizations. The event came on the heels of four reported deaths so far at the jail this year, bringing the number since 2014 up to 66.
"We are calling on Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to take urgent action in ending the practice of detaining individuals with mental health and substance use needs," said Joy George of Restore Oakland, Inc. in a statement. "Sixty-six people have died in Santa Rita Jail since 2014 and our elected officials have poured millions of dollars into a jail that continues to kill those who are in desperate need of medical care. This ends now!"
The most recent in-custody death for Santa Rita occurred on March 1, when Candice "Cody" Vanburen, 33, was pronounced dead at a hospital after being found unresponsive in a cell the previous day on Feb. 28.
Vanburen's death, which remains under investigation, was preceded by three others at the jail in the early months of 2023.
Elizabeth Laurel, 39, died on Feb. 13 after she was found unresponsive in her cell. Charles Johnson, 45, was pronounced dead at Stanford Health Care in Pleasanton on Feb. 4, two days following a medical emergency at the jail. Determinations on their causes of death are still pending.
The first in-custody death of the year at Santa Rita was Stephen Lofton, 39, in a suspected suicide on Jan. 17.
"These deaths are 100% preventable," John Lindsay-Poland, of the American Friends Service Committee, said in a statement. "It's time Alameda County ends its reliance on the criminal legal system to meet the needs of residents with mental health and substance use needs. Resources must be reinvested into an upstream, community-based, life-affirming continuum of care."
In-custody deaths under uncertain circumstances during short spans of time at Santa Rita are all too common, according to organizers and speakers at the weekend rally -- including Norma Nelson, whose brother Donald Nelson died just two hours after being booked into the jail in 2020, at the hands of another inmate who later pleaded guilty to his murder.
"A person coming to Santa Rita Jail with a mental health or a medical crisis should not receive a death sentence," Nelson said. "That's what my brother Donald Nelson received within two hours of being here -- a death sentence."
While the loss was a shock to Nelson and her family, work toward criminal justice reform was not new for Nelson, nor her late brother.
"When he lived with me in 2018, he witnessed me working on education and advocacy around criminal justice reform," Nelson said. "Who would have thought that me supporting AB 1185 for sheriff accountability and oversight would have such a significant part in my life, that it would impact me personally."
With the legislation she had been working on being signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom just months before her brother's death in 2020, Nelson said that the next step was to leverage the legislation locally.
"In the wake of my family's nightmare, I also want to call attention to the Alameda County League of Women Voters to call on the Board of Supervisors to implement a strong and independent civilian oversight of the sheriff," Nelson said. "All of the authority is there. The question is whether the political willpower is there."
"We as a people, we have to apply the pressure where the pressure points need to be placed," she added.
Dorsey Nunn, executive director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, has been working towards supporting inmates and addressing injustice against incarcerated people since he was released from his own sentence in 1981, having been first booked into Santa Rita himself as a teenager more than a decade prior.
"I got out in 1981. I have had no other job other than fighting for the full restoration of civil and human rights. I turned that into a full-time job," Nunn said at the Saturday rally.
With decades of experience under his belt, Nunn noted that systemic issues within jails and prisons are nothing new, and becoming all the more clear to more and more people as time goes on.
"At a certain point there is (something) called compassion, and we are sorely missing that as a society, especially when it comes to Black and brown folks," Nunn said.
Under current conditions, Nunn said that the practices at Santa Rita and within the penal system more broadly were modern forms of slavery.
"The first thing I need to acknowledge is that on this land, we still hold slaves," Nunn said. "As long as we're holding slaves we'll never respect human life ... so it's people in here dying, and they've been dying all the time."
With Nunn's remarks concluding the speakers ahead of that afternoon's march, the dozens of organizers and supporters at Saturday's event took to the service road alongside the jail's barbed-wire fences with instruments, signs, banners, and chants aimed at calling for an end to current practices and offering encouragement and support to those currently behind the jail's walls, some of whom could be heard drumming on windows and chanting back to demonstrators.
Demonstrators' demands that day included an immediate end to the arrest and incarceration of people with mental health and substance abuse challenges, and an investigation into the deaths to be ordered by the Board of Supervisors, along with the immediate funding of $50 million to mental health services that the board committed to last year but has not yet implemented, according to organizers.
"Alameda County's increasingly uncoordinated and inadequate community-based mental health systems have resulted in deep racial inequities where severely ill and traumatized black and brown residents get funneled into a deadly jail," Margot Dashiel, of East Bay Supportive Housing Collaborative, said in a statement. "Enough is enough. We are rallying to demand the supervisors address these human-caused crises with urgency."